How Do I Know My Process System Won’t Break, Blowup, Burst or Fail?  

by | EPIC Modular Process

An engineer inspects a batch-mixing system

When people are buying a new car, one of their top deciding factors is whether or not the car is of high quality, and one of the others is making sure that it is safe. No one wants to buy a car that will break down ten times a year or is a death trap. The same goes for process systems. A new process system is a large investment for your company, so it is understandable to be concerned with the quality and safety of the system.

And for older process systems, you want to keep employees safe and operations moving smoothly. If a system is of poor quality, experiencing internal fatigue, or pushing its process limits, failures that could occur include:

  • Pipes bursting
  • Pumps locking up and causing chemical spills
  • Welds failing
  • Tanks rupturing
  • Reactions getting out of control and catching fire
  • Continuous leaks could compromise the system
  • And so on.

These are only a few examples of what could happen if your system is manufactured poorly, resulting in expensive change-orders, safety concerns, or off-spec output. How can you check both new and existing systems for these dangerous conditions?

Checking for Bad Quality & Unsafe Operating Conditions

You shouldn’t assume new systems are high quality or that just because a system has been fine so far means it will continue operating safely. Instead, be proactive by using the following strategies to verify fabrication quality and continued operational safety:

  1. Check individual pieces of equipment for ASME code verifications – Most process systems are required to be under American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) codes. Because of this pipes and tanks should be reviewed to be within code for your usage. For example, if looking at a batch tank that is marked to be at 15 PSI (which makes it a pressure vessel) and is not labeled as an ASME approved pressure vessel, then it is very likely that it is an unsafe tank.
  2. Review weld quality – Welds should always look clean & tight – not a lot of filler or distance between metal surfaces. Cracks down the middle, discolored metal, and thin welds are all bad signs. Verify all welds were reviewed by a certified weld inspector, and consider having periodic inspections of existing systems.
  3. Ask for and Review Quality Assurance procedures from your process equipment fabricator -High-quality systems from process system fabricators that have thorough, well-documented quality assurance programs. This documentation should be turned over along with the process equipment, and someone on your team should review it thoroughly. From structural reviews to surface finish and electrical reviews, a full QA program leaves no aspect of a processing system un-examined. All of the piping, wiring, welding, and tanks are up to code.
  4. Review Fabricator Qualifications – From passing welding tests to being up-to-date with certifications and safety training, all members of a fabricators crew should be able to demonstrate qualifications. In addition, ask for past project photos and example quality logs. Also, make sure fabrication firms aren’t doing anything they are not certified to do; for example, you need a certification to be a pressure vessel welder.
  5. Ask for an Inspection Test Plan – An inspection test plan (ITP) is a normal procedure for most fabrication shops, but be proactive in requesting one if it’s not mentioned.  During an ITP, the project management team presents a plan on how they will inspect the system, test the system, and involve you in the process.
  6. Know your process parameters – baselining the normal operating conditions of your process system is the key to knowing when things are headed in the wrong direction. Data collection, whether by operators or control systems, should track pressure levels, temperatures, and other key pieces of information. If operating parameters start to exceed normal ranges, you have a problem developing. While shutting down to address it may be expensive, waiting for the system to overheat, over or under pressurize, or have a major failure is much more expensive.
  7. Use Predictive Maintenance – Newer advances in system automation can do some of this work for you, but even old-school systems can be checked for signs of internal fatigue. One simple test is to have periodic oil and hydraulic fluid tests on any equipment using lubrication. Metal particles inside oil can indicate wear of internal metal parts, and other signs of impending problems, like high bacteria counts, can be discovered this way as well. Newer automation systems can also catch issues by communicating with individual pieces of process equipment and automatically tracking and logging performance data.

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What to do in the event of an unsafe system

If you find that your system appears to be unsafe, or worst-case scenario, your system fails, the first step that should be taken is to check to make sure that your system will not cause any more damage. After that, there are other steps necessary to get your system back and running.

  1. Check for any injuries
  2. Report to EPA or OSHA if needed
  3. Clean up the mess
  4. Contact design/build firm

If you are lucky enough to catch that your system is unsafe before any failure occurs, then be sure to clear the area and contact the design/build firm and discuss updating the system.

Remember that a safe system meets code. If a system is up to code, then it should operate safely, and perform at a high level. Systems also should be regularly maintained. Just like changing the oil on your car, process systems should be taken care of so that they can run optimally.

If you have any questions regarding whether or not your process system is safe, or if it is up to code, please contact EPIC Process Systems today to discuss an inspection.

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